Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The War on Words

Last time I wrote about writing crutches and how they weaken prose. I cited my own problems with recognizing the passive voice. I also discussed my tendency to use "ly" words such as sadly, happily, angrily, and so forth to describe a mood or emotion rather than letting character actions or words do the work for me. Towards the end, I wrote:
With regards to the passive voice problem, I am now declaring war on the "to be" verbs. (Is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being.) This lets me focus on a well-defined set of words that are often the hallmark of the passive voice. When I find a sentence with one of these words I will examine it to see if I can rewrite it without a "to be" verb. Often I won't be able to, but just as often I will discover a more natural, less awkward way of expressing the same idea. At the very least, I believe the practice will make me a better writer.

I spent much of the last week eliminating specific words. Pleased with the result, I expanded my search to a much broader list of words. To be precise, I made a long list of "ly" words, such as I mentioned above, and sought them out with a renewed passion.

I eliminated the vast majority all these words with little trouble. Often I could delete these words without altering the sentence at all, a sure sign the words were superfluous. In other cases the sentence had to be changed, but the new sentence almost always proved to be demonstrably better. In a very few cases I could neither eliminate the word, nor construct a superior sentence that wasn't rambling or awkward. In those few cases, I left the original sentence untouched.

I lost almost two-thousand words from my manuscript. This, in part, is a result of the eliminated words and reformed sentences. Much of the reduced word count, however, came from my realization that a number of sentences were redundant or otherwise unneeded. The exercise had the unexpected benefit of forcing me to look at sentences in isolation.

During a normal editing pass I read a section or chapter in sequential order from beginning to end. The flow of the work makes me see words and sentences as part of a bigger whole. Small problems become lost in a forest of changes. I ignore bad or weak sentences because they are surrounded by better ones.

By focusing on eliminating specific words, I forced myself to pay attention to sentences out of context. It forced me to think about the specific meaning of individual sentences and what purpose they served in the narrative. In previous edits I skimmed over many sentences and thought, "that works." This time I forced myself to study each sentence, one at a time, and ponder, "Why is this here?" When I couldn't answer that question to my satisfaction, I deleted the entire sentence rather than rewriting it.

I now find myself paying much more attention to sentences as I write them. By the time I reach the end of a sentence or paragraph I am editing it to see where I can remove clutter, redundancy, and weakness .

The end result: I believe this exercise made me a better writer. I therefore deem it a success and will continue to employ it as needed.

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